The Incomparable Barbara Cook
Barbara Cook recently returned to San Francisco in triumph for eight performances at the Curran Theatre. She brought her faithful musical director and wonderful piano accompanist Wally Harper with her; Harper designed the concept for the show, Mostly Sondheim. Ms. Cook appeared on the Geary Theatre stage in 2000 in a tryout of the current concept. That four day engagement had some rough patches; however, all of that has been smoothed over. What we saw on opening night was a brilliant finished production.
I have seen Barbara Cook over the years so many times that I have lost count. She is a prima diva in my mind’s eye. I first saw her singing the fabulous "Jewel Song" in Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. I saw her Marian the Librarian in The Music Man, plus her roles in Plain and Fancy, The Grass Harp and She Loves Me. I have watched her become better and better in her many club appearances here in San Francisco and New York.
Now 75 years old, Barbara Cook has not lost her ability to hold an audience. Each time I see Ms. Cook, her voice is better. She has gained more than she has lost over the years, not only as a musician but as an interpretive artist and all-round entertainer.
Ms. Cook's introduction at the beginning of the concert is simple and to the point. Wally Harper says, “Here is Barbara Cook,” and she strolls out dressed in a loose sweater and black slacks with a great welcoming smile on her face. Needless to say, the audience goes wild. She goes immediately into Sondheim’s complex song, “Everybody Says Don’t” from Anyone Can Whistle with invigorating vitality. Barbara then tells the audience that the program will consist mostly of Sondheim songs and those written by songwriters and composers he most admires. The program is balanced with songs from Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin, among others. Her opening melody of four Harold Arlen songs includes the delightful “Buds Won’t Bud” with lyrics by Yip Harburg, Arlen and Mercer’s bluesy song “I Wonder What Became of Me” and their heartfelt “I had Myself a True Love.” There is so much emotion coming from her during this number that it brings tears to the eyes. Her rendition of Arlen and Harburg’s “The Eagle and Me” from Bloomer Girl soars to the skies.
Barbara Cook performs 22 songs in the program, about half of which are from the pen of Stephen Sondheim. She gives a dizzying emotional slide on “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” and does the exact opposite in an intriguingly slow rendition of “Another Hundred People,” both from Company . Her reading of “Losing My Mind” from the Follies is gorgeously phrased and her take on “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music gives the ubiquitous song a new spin. This great artist also does a passionate rendition of two songs from Sondheim’s Passion.
Barbara Cook tells the audience that Stephen would have loved to have written songs like the stimulating “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee,” by L. Wolfe Gilbert and Lewis F. Muir, and the energetic “Hard-Hearted Hannah.” And we can’t forget the national anthem of our city, “San Francisco,” which is as good as it gets.
The evening would not be complete without one of Cook's signature songs, "Ice Cream" from She Loves Me. she says it is is getting harder and harder to hit the high notes and calls the song “soprano road kill.”
After the thunderous ovation by the audience, we are treated to a brilliant encore. She sings the lovely “Anyone Can Whistle” without a mike and her voice softly reaches every part of the house. This is sheer magic and not another sound is heard in this large house while she sings. There follows rapturous applause for one the greatest singers of our generation.
Once again Wally Harper shows that he is one of the great musical talents in the business today. Local bassist Jeff Neighbor capably filled in for absent Jon Burr at our performance. Wally mentioned to the audience that Jeff had only a two hour rehearsal before coming out onto the Curran stage.
Barbara Cook performed only eight performances at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary Street, San Francisco and the show ran though November 30. For more information, visit www.bestofbroadway-sf.com.